Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, June 29, 2014


                                    It hurts…

Over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer put up a post recently about the difficulties below-the-line work-bots occasionally experience in getting paid.  This very rarely happen on union jobs -- preventing such abuses is one of the many  good reasons to join a union in the first place -- but back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget/non-union/caveat-emptor/Welcome to the Jungle/Laissez-faire Hell, getting your hands on a hard-earned paycheck wasn’t always a smooth or trouble-free process.

Or as Peg put it: 

“Get a group of production workers together and every single one of us will have a story about the extreme measures to which we’ve gone to get checks.”

True, that.

Although I’ve never been stiffed -- not paid at all -- I’ve had had to wait a very long time for a few checks to come in over the years.  The worst was one of my first gaffing gigs for some Fringe-Co production company from Texas that breezed into LA to shoot a one day commercial, then flew back home after we wrapped.  Four months later, none of the LA crew had been paid... so we began discussing the feasibility of  getting a lawyer involved, and poof -- the checks arrived.  

Funny how that happens.

After repeated calls to another low-rent production company inquiring as to exactly when my long-overdue check would come, I finally went down to their office and stood in front of the producer’s desk until he  wrote and handed me the check.  Another producer from the mid-west claimed to have “forgotten all about” our checks more than a month after the crew had driven seventy-plus miles into the desert through the pre-dawn dark, filmed from morning ‘til night, then made the long drive back home.  He was very apologetic, and the checks arrived a few days later.

Then there was the time I had to make a determined stand at the end of a very long day in a pitched argument with two producers to convince them that although it was indeed a non-union job, neither the gaffer, I (as BB), or the juicer I’d hired should have to work fourteen+ hours without hitting double-time.  There'd been nothing said about working on a flat before the job started, and I couldn't let that go without giving it my best shot.  They were decent people -- otherwise they’d have just walked away -- and eventually gave in, but it was an ugly way to end an ugly day.

It was also a Phyrric victory on my part.  I was never called to worked for them again, but sometimes that's the price of doing what you have to do.
Music videos were particularly sketchy endeavors back in the day, often produced by rock and roll sleaze-bags well acquainted with the fine art of screwing everything and everybody in sight.  On some of those gigs, one of the many "producers" would make the rounds after the 14th, 15th, or 16th hour with a bottle of cocaine and a tiny spoon, dispensing a bump to every crew member who wanted it.

Which, truth be told, was most of us.  Hey, it was the 80's, when Hollywood was awash in a tsunami of cocaine.  What the hell -- if we weren't going to get any overtime (and that wasn't going to happen), we might as well try to ease the pain of working such a long day, however fleeting such relief might be.

After working from late afternoon through the night into dawn on a George Clinton video (Atomic Dog), we finished the wrap, then all of us -- electric and grip -- headed straight for the bank at 8:00 in the morning with our freshly-cut paychecks in hand.  Unwilling to take any chances, we waited in line to cash those checks one by one, until the last person in line -- some poor PA, as I recall -- was turned away when the account hit zero. 

I don't know what happened, but do hope that poor bastard finally got his money.

I’ve been very lucky not to get stiffed over the years.  Plenty of people have, and they’re still pissed about it.  More than a few grips and juicers I've worked with at one time or another had to march into the production office and grab an IBM Selectric off the secretary’s desk (this during the pre-computer era), then refuse to give it back until they were paid.  I’ve talked to camera assistants who held cans of unprocessed film hostage until their checks were finally delivered.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I haven't had to work a non-union job or suffer through a truly low-budget gig since the WGA strike back in 2008.   The union sees to it that we get paid on time, so -- unless a there's another crippling strike or payroll company goes bankrupt -- there isn't much chance I'll stiffed at this point.*

That's fine with me, because getting stiffed -- or even having to wait in inordinately long time to get paid -- is not only rude and insulting, but it can really hurt people who are often  skating on the edge already. 

And that sucks.

* Never say never, though.  One of the major payroll companies did go bankrupt a few years ago, leaving a lot of people waiting in vain for those checks to come.  Peggy Archer wrote about that debacle at the time.


Anonymous said...

It's not always an accountants fault much more often a "producer" or other boss. The accountant just wants to settle things up so the books can be closed on production.

That said, some bosses DO care a lot about this issue. I always wondered if they might have once been on the other side of it.

The one that sticks in my mind - the payroll company had some system screw-up so direct deposits would be one day late. Thank god they sent a notice around. I suggested we could hand out checks on payroll day, but that the folks receiving them might have to wait a day after depositing them in their bank before having access to the money. This actually matched our policy (checks handed out on payroll).

My boss at the time pointed out that people had gotten used to the same day availability of direct deposit, and asked if there was ANYTHING we could do to match that for staff. I said that if they were willing to pay for my extra hours we could withdraw cash, and I could go to each bank for all the staff and hand deposit straight cash into their accounts - same day availability.

This worked because we had all banking info for direct deposit on file.

The boss went for that immediately, and we headed to the bank to make a rather large cash withdrawal (I took individual bank runs to avoid carrying a small fortune in cash). Now THAT was a boss who wanted to make sure people got paid on time. I did get some strange looks, but most of the bankers became very helpful when they realized what was going on.

I actually carried that lesson forward over the years, and "making it right" every time turns out to be a winning strategy with the folks who work for you over longer periods of time (hollywood is very transitory so not the same value there).

Michael Taylor said...

That I've only experienced a handful of seriously delayed checks over 36 years is evidence that most production companies operate in good faith when it comes to paying their crews.

It also means I've been fortunate.

I don't think those low-budget outfits that took their sweet time paying me did so out of any real malicious intent. Money flows downhill, and they were probably dealing with delays of their own in getting paid by penny-pinching clients upstream.

Still, there are a few bad apples in every barrel, and the film/television industry has its share. Shit can happen in this town, and the newbies to the business need to know that.

Thanks for offering your perspective, and for tuning in...